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article imageCalifornia drought may leave migratory birds high and dry

By Karen Graham     Nov 7, 2015 in Environment
The Pacific Flyway is a major north-south flyway for migrating birds, extending from Alaska down to Patagonia. California is part of the flight path, and the state's extended drought in now threatening the health of these travelers.
In the northern part of California's Central Valley is a beautiful city called Lodi, and while it's known for being a center of the state's wine production industry, Lodi has another distinction, owing to the city location along the Pacific Flyway. Lodi is also known for its annual "Lodi Sandhill Crane Festival," started 20 years ago.
Sandhill cranes, with their red heads, 7-foot (2.13 m) wingspan, and a trilling call, are a welcome sight every fall, and provide a dramatic, almost awe-inspiring sight as they land by the thousands in the wetlands near Sacramento each evening during the fall and winter.
Sandhill Crane with Chick looking for food.
Sandhill Crane with Chick looking for food.
The November 6 through 8 Sandhill Crane Festival this year will be well attended, but bird lovers are very concerned over the extended drought the state has been experiencing and its effect on the health of the millions of migratory birds that stop off in California on their way further south.
Drought's effect on Migratory birds
Up to six million ducks, geese, and swans, as well as millions of shorebirds, seabirds and songbirds depend on the Sierra Nevada's snowpack in the winter to leave freshly melted snow alive with grasses and insects. However, the drought has dried up many of the state's wetlands, and insects, fish, and plants are gone.
In July this year, National Geographic published a report on the drought and its threat to the health of the migratory birds. Blake Barbaree, an avian ecologist at Point Blue Conservation Science, a nonprofit research center in Petaluma, California told Nat Geo, "The longer droughts are the worst. At first, the energy deficits from too little food affect the weaker or younger ones. In back-to-back droughts, even the strong birds get pushed to the limit."
Boat docks sit empty on dry land  as Folsom Lake reservoir near Sacramento stands at only 18 percent...
Boat docks sit empty on dry land, as Folsom Lake reservoir near Sacramento stands at only 18 percent capacity during severe drought in California on September 17, 2015
Mark Ralston, AFP/File
The drought and added stress to migrating birds is evident as over the past two years, many have died, or been depleted of so much energy they are unable to reproduce, affecting the overall populations. Added to this is the number of ducks and geese, crowded onto parched river banks, devoid of the nourishing plants that are usually present, dying from botulism and cholera, which race through their feeding grounds.
Flooded fields will be far less than what is needed
Craig Isola, is the deputy project leader for the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. He says that in past years, farmers have flooded their fields in the Sacramento Valley north of the Delta. The flooded fields are rich with unused grain while insects and other nutrients supply half of the food eaten by migratory birds each year.
The North Atlantic around Alaska is the nesting area for millions of seabirds every year.
The North Atlantic around Alaska is the nesting area for millions of seabirds every year.
But this year, only 100,000 acres will be flooded, and with only five inches of water, down from the 300,000 acres usually flooded in the past. This flooding of the land has been done for years because the land was once natural wetlands, but dams, reservoirs and diversion of the water dried them up. Farmers have tried to replicate the wetlands, but this year, it will be disastrous for the migrating birds.
Dan Yparraguirre, the deputy director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife sums things up pretty well. He says, "If a disease outbreak occurs we could lose a lot more of them than we would in a normal year." And he says the birds are going to be weakened by a lack of food. "They will have less access to food and poorer body condition come spring, then when they migrate north they may not make it," he said.
More about Migratory birds, pacific flyway, california drought, threat to health, wetlands shrinking
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